Though America’ s greatest playwright was
born in New York City (1888), his family’s New London summer cottage
provided the writer with a home—with a sense of belonging somewhere.
The vacation house (dubbed the Monte Cristo Cottage by his father James
O’Neill) was a familiar place for Eugene after living in theatrical
hotels, studying at boarding schools, or convalescing at a tuberculosis
James O’Neill was a rising star of the American stage when he and his wife Ella purchased two New London properties in 1884. Theatrically, financially, and personally the future seemed very bright. In 1883 the thirty-seven-year-old actor had stepped into the leading role of Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, replacing an ailing Charles Thorne, the production’s scheduled star. While critical response was lukewarm, audiences loved the creaky melodrama, and tremendous box office profits kept James O’Neill touring in the play for more than twenty-five years. Edmund Dantes brought fame and fortune, but the role stunted James O’Neill’s growth as a Shakespearean actor. It was something he deeply regretted. In the autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night James Tyrone confesses to his son Edmund: "...my good bad luck made me find the big money-maker" (Collected Plays, 1177). The Monte Cristo Cottage on Pequot Avenue provided the O’Neill family with a semblance of a home—a place to try and gather their strength between exhausting theatrical tours.
While O’Neill the man never returned to New London for any length of time after his father’s death in 1920, O’Neill the dramatist returned again and again to the time and place where he spent his formative years. These were years that can be described as a crucible of genius for the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In a 1963 interview with biographer Louis Sheaffer, Maibelle Scott described her brief romance with O’Neill (circa 1912-1914) and shared memories of the young writer’s ambitions. "When I came home from school, I’d meet him at Mitchell’s Woods and we’d walk, sometimes to Ocean Beach. He once said to me, Do you realize that we have never sat down together? We have always walked," she recalled. "Once (he) said, as we walked along, There isn’t a house that doesn’t have a story...I’m going to write them some day" (Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection, Connecticut College).
It is well-known that Eugene O’Neill set his masterpieces Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey into Night at his boyhood home. What is less well-known is that New London and its environs seem to have inspired settings and/or character sketches for many of O’Neill’s other plays including Bread and Butter (1914), The First Man (1921), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Emperor Jones (1924), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947).
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